This would be the trickiest navigating in the entire race. Mark was calling out features and 'catches' and staying very focused on what he was doing. We had not seen another team in about five hours, and then 'Capital Stamina' trekked out of the bush and right on top of the same large rock feature as us! They were as shocked as we were to find that we were still neck and neck.
and with that both teams headed back into the bush in opposite directions. The terrain consisted entirely of rolling hills and river gullies, and after hours of trekking over this terrain people's feet were really starting to hurt. Blisters were already an issue and our pace had noticeably slowed. Mark was doing an amazing job of 'staying on the map' and was positive that we were just below our desired point. We scrambled up only to find that there was no CP around! There is probably no worse feeling in adventure racing. Way beyond any pain that you will ever suffer from trekking, riding or paddling, to have a wave of uncertainty reverberate down your spine while you are in the middle of nowhere is truly disturbing. I've been in races where you think you are about to grab the CP only to discover that you are standing on the wrong spine of a mountain! All you want to do at this point is scream until you go deaf, cry until you collapse, and lay there and wait for a passing Raven to peck your eyes out. I was getting very close to doing just this, when I happened to spot a piece of paper under a rock. It was left by the lead team Orion and said that they could not find the CP and thought it to be in this very spot...thank God! They were some of the most experienced racers in this event and if they were sure this was the spot we certainly were not about to question it! There wasn't the usual CP elation that follows knowing you're not lost, but a sigh of relief was heard by all.
From here we headed down into a dried up, sandy riverbed to find the next two CP's. We had located the hardest points on the trek and it looked pretty straight forward from here on in. After grabbing the next two CP there was but a very long 4x4 road to follow back to our bikes. We were on pace to cross the finish line that night!
Mark couldn't resist, "I can almost taste the beer guys! We're on the home stretch!!"
Me, "So far so good Fearman, let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet!"
"Yeah, you're right...but the beer's man, I can smell em!"
From out of nowhere team AWREC appeared. They had come from a completely different direction. I asked Tim, their captain
"Hey, where are you guys coming from?"
"The CP, where are YOU guys coming from?"
"THE CP! Did you find the note?"
"The note left by Orion?"
"ORION...you guys must have gone to the original CP! That was misplaced and re-plotted, you were supposed to be way over here for that one (as he pointed to his map)"
As a team we discussed our options here. Somehow we hadn't heard about a newly plotted CP and ended up going to the original point on our map. Was it worth it to double back, for hours, and grab the proper point? We basically deduced after a few minutes that where we had just gone was an even longer route than if we had headed for the new CP. We had followed our maps as they were laid out and had taken a picture of Orion's note to prove that we were in the 'right spot'. There was no possible way that the Race Director could penalize us for this 'error'. It had already cost us enough time to have done a longer route and to have located a piece of paper verses an actual CP. AWREC agreed with our analogy of the situation and we decided to start trekking together.
We quickly located our next CP and had but one left to go! From there a straight forward 4x4 road would lead us out of the trek. It looked like it would take us less than an hour to grab the final CP and hit the 4x4 road. The timing was perfect as it was getting late in the day, approaching 4pm already, and the sun was starting to drop. Together we held a solid pace through a maze of dried riverbeds and eventually popped out into an open area with some cattle roaming around. Tim and Mark both agreed that this was not right. We had trekked far enough and should have been virtually on top of our desired point, but as the streaks of light in the sky started to fade a mad rush on our part ensued. We literally had about twenty minutes to pinpoint our location before darkness was upon us and would significantly alter our progress.
Mark, Tim and I took off in different directions to try and find a high point of land and 'triangulate' our position, but we ran out of time. Both teams regrouped and came up with the best plan possible. We had to trek south until we hit a dried riverbed. From here we would have to trek in that riverbed for a few kilometers to get a feel for what way the river would have flowed. We were looking at three possibilities for where we could be, and only by trekking in one riverbed for long enough could we figure out exactly what had happened.
Travel within the riverbed was taxing on the feet, as it was nothing but loose sand. Instead of now trekking on the home stretch, we were off in some random direction, fighting through the sand and unsure as to where we really were. The energy level was starting to drop due to these uncertainties, and lack of motivation to fight the 'sleepmonsters' was creeping in. The one highlight, well two highlights were that we spotted a 'Bilby', which is a small kangaroo like rodent (we have that one on film), and as I threw my eyes skyward at one point I happened to spot a bright red lunar eclipse! Everyone stopped for a few minutes to fully appreciate the final moments of the disappearing sliver of bright red moon.
After about an hour and a half of riverbed trekking we were able to establish our position on the maps...and it wasn't good. We were further South than anticipated and instead of trekking toward the CP we had just spent the entire time heading away from it.We all turned around, trying to take positives from the fact that at least we now knew where we were again.
The next few hours of trekking were harsh. The terrain hadn't changed, but it just seemed to go on forever, and our situation was hard to mentally accept as we were within minutes of being 'home free' and had somehow blown it. Nick's feet were starting to give him issues, more so than just blisters, the muscles in the base of his feet were starting to shut down on him. Mark, as always, had some nice blisters going, Megan was toughing it out but I could tell she was in serious pain from blistering as well, and my feet seemed to have grown right into my shoes in the last few hours. I was still getting off relatively easy in regards to any chaffing or blistering, but my feet were in serious pain and I wanted nothing more than to drop down and sleep again. To top it all off, we had completely drained our food supplies. I will never dump food again!! I knew I was down to my last few hundred calories, but at that point in time I had zero willpower to stop myself from consuming them. GONE, nothing left and although we were aware of the fact that we still had a lengthy trek ahead of us, we were unaware of the fact that it would take another twelve hours to get to our food!
We could smell the smoke from the CP campfire for almost an hour before we actually located it. Finally at 11:30pm, and after five full hours of searching, we nestled up next to a warm fire. Sleep seemed inevitable until we received our first rains of the event! We packed up, begged long enough to be given a small bag of trail mix from AWREC, who were attempting sleep, and were off again.
The next few hours are a bit of a blur, mainly because of the fact that we all became a bunch of useless Zombie's without an effective game plan other than,
"Let's fight through the night, we can make it! As soon as the sun rises we'll be fine, the finish line is 'just around the corner'!"
What ensued was the most ridiculous thing I've ever been a part of in a race. We were fighting for all we were worth to stay awake, so much so that we were actually falling asleep on our feet. I remember trekking with my eyes completely closed, and if the ground under foot changed I knew I had gone off course and needed to open my eyes again.
The next thing I remember was waking up, while standing upright, and seeing a frozen figure about ten feet ahead of me. Mark had done the same thing...as long as I got ahead of him I wouldn't be the slowest on the team, so I trekked on ahead until my eyes gave out on me and I fell asleep again. A few minutes later I opened my eyes to once again spot Mark ahead of me and asleep on his feet. I put in a solid effort to cover 100 meters and promptly passed out on my feet yet again. A few minutes after that, same thing! I never once heard him passing me and I know he had to have been of the same mindset because he certainly did not try to wake me up! Nick and Meg's were having a similar sleep walking contest of their own just up ahead of us. You know those guys who make money by painting themselves and posing as statues all day, we would have put them to shame on this night! It took forever for us to realize that at this rate our trek would take us about three months to complete and we conceded that we would have to lay down for some sleep.
"One hour guys. One hour should be enough to rejuvenate us and help us make it till sunrise."
An hour and a half later we all managed to get back to our feet and feel fresh. This lasted for all of about five full minutes before the sleep walking competition once again ensued. We tried to pump up our I-pod tunes and sing along, but it only served to serenade us off to la la land. Megan and Nick called out for a stretching stop. Fair enough, not a bad idea as we were all pretty broken at that point. I rarely stretch in an expedition and figured I'd grab a five minute nap while they stretched their limbs. We all sat down and I had long since perfected the art of sleeping with my pack on so that I am ready to go the second after I wake up. I lay back on my bag, only removing the waste belt and it makes a perfect pillow. As I stand up after a sleep the bag reminds me that it is still attached to me and I'm ready to go immediately. I guess once I closed my eyes it was over. Meg's, Nick and Mark all thought they were being sly by passing out while no one was looking. The truth was that no one was able to move at that point anyways and if there was any hope of us making it off of this trek before the ten day cut off we simply had to get some more rest.
Passing out in the middle of the road was the best thing that we could have done. I have no idea how much time passed, maybe 40-60 minutes, but eventually another team caught us and had to step over and around us to get past. We were stirred just enough from our slumber to realize what was happening, and as tough as it was, we all leaped to our feet and started talking to the strangers on the other team, while simultaneously moving our feet faster than they had gone in over twelve hours!
After following along with this team for about an hour the morning had found us. SUNSHINE, thank God for the sun!!! It is unbelievable how much energy your body can find in a brightened morning sky, the cobwebs in our heads were slowly shaken out. As long as we didn't mess up anything else we WOULD be in an actual bed the next time we slept!!
Unfortunately the sun could not cure our wounds. For the first time in my racing 'career' my feet were seriously swollen. I honestly thought that my foot could burst right out of my shoe at any moment. The team we had followed into the sunrise had dug deep to start running to the CP from here. I told myself I could run if I had to, but was happy to not test out that theory! Eventually, as the end of this trekking stage seemed to get getting further away rather than closer, I took my shoes right off. I initially loosened off the laces, which helped, but my forefoot needed freedom from the restrictions of a toe box that was somehow now a full size too small. I went barefoot and outside of stepping on a few larger stones, my feet were in heaven!!
It was over ten hours since our last bit of sustenance and I passed the time by looking for dropped food from other racers! I found an orange peel, and was tempted, but understood that nothing good would result from it...and then, I hit the jackpot! Right there in front of me, all alone, and in the middle of nowhere, having been dropped by another team, was a single walnut! I turned around to make sure my teammates weren't looking and downed it all to myself. I felt bad for about three seconds before I started rubbing it in...
"I just ate a walnut, I just ate a walnut, I just had an entire walnut!!!"
Just when we were all about to loose our marbles from this damn trekking stage, we spotted it, the final transition of XPD 2007!
The trekking stage had taken us over 37 hours to complete, slow enough for the 31st time on the stage! Team 'Capital Stamina' had put thirteen hours into us on that stage alone, and even AWREC had beat us out by over three hours!! Our shot at a top ten finish had evaporated somewhere between a dried riverbed and the walking Zombie competition.
Transition was more about fueling ourselves and trying to enjoy what was left of our experience. We now knew that top ten was out of the question but that we would indeed finish this race as a fully ranked team! It was an amazing feeling and one that we all tried to soak up. After just over an hour in transition, and being somewhat amazed that I was able to squeeze my feet into my bike shoes, we departed with the 20th transitional time, funny enough Dart had the 19th time, but I think they were in a similar situation where they already had fourth place sewn up and had nothing to rush for. (Congrats to Dart as well. Although they suffered from almost three times the flat tires as we did, they still managed a solid fourth place overall. It's a lot of fun to have such a talented team of racers just down the coast from us around Seattle, and I know my team benefits greatly from every encounter we have with them. Hopefully we can start closing those big gaps on them in 2008!!)
We were under the impression that the final bike leg would be a fast and straight forward 60km ride. Instead we were lost within an hour, riding through random Cane Sugar fields with teams all around us. It was game time again and everyone was scrambling to find their position on the maps. Once again Mark did an amazing job with this and there was but one team around us that managed to locate our position and vacate the cane fields from the proper direction earlier. While we were messing about I happened to glance down and notice that a piece of my bike was missing! The rear linkage that holds the back shock together had somehow disappeared! It had to have been a recent thing for my bike was still in one piece and rideable, but it certainly would stay that way for long. We managed to use a piece of Nick's broken bike tool as a replacement part, and after I kicked it into the frame we were off again...I was starting to dread the bill for having my bike fixed after this race!
We came across two snakes in the cane fields. The first was only spotted by Meg's and Nick and I missed it, while the second was a huge python crossing the road! It was at least two meters long and a few inches wide!! I quickly stopped, reached for my camera and as I turned it on for a video the snake's tail was all I saw as it slithering into the cane fields..."DAMMIT! No one is going to believe we saw five snakes out here!!"
The final 40km of biking was all on road with very little navigation to worry about. We set up a nice pace line and went to work. There were a few CP's that still had to be collected, just off of the road itself. Even with destroyed feet you can bike like a champion and not notice. I was brought back to reality as I stepped off of my bike to punch our passport and nearly collapsed in pain! The CP was but 100 feet away and it took a concentrated effort to collect it without crying!
As we biked into the outskirts of Airlie Beach, Megan's father Ivan was there with Mark's girlfriend Catie to cheer us on! It felt absolutely incredible to have this bit of support from 'friends and family' as we were approaching the finish line. A few kilometers later, as we rounded the corner to the very end of the race, I flicked on my camera to shoot a finish line video, and it promptly died! It didn't matter, I'll never forget that moment anyways!!
We were presented with a bottle of champagne (I'm still trying to get that shake and spray thing down...next time for sure!) a box of pizza and a tub of ice cream. I couldn't eat the pizza so I devoured the ice cream as we sat on 'The Finisher's Couch' and told some of our stories. About twenty minutes later, those teams that were with us in the cane fields started to pile in and team Helly Hansen-MOMAR'S time in the spotlight had come to a close.
I don't know that I have ever been involved in a race that was more frustrating than XPD. Of course it wasn't the event or terrain itself, but the issues we had to overcome. On more than one occasaion I was certain that this was the last expedition race of my life, only to sit here now, trying to work out my finances for 08 to load my schedule with as much as I can handle!
I was very fortunate to have had such incredible teammates for this race. Megan was as solid as ever, Mark was as funny as ever and had the maps dialed, Nick was tough as nails, funny when we needed it and motivational when we lacked that. It was an incredible dynamic and I believe it is the only reason that we were able to overcome so many obstacles to make it across that line. Maybe, just maybe, the A.R. God's will smile down on team Helly Hansen-MOMAR in 2008 and allow us to have a smooth race at some point, at least in terms of adventure racing, which is to say that even cutting our issues in half would be nice!
Final race stats:
Total Race Time: 177 hours and 26 minutes, or just over a full week
Transitions: 24 hours and 53 minutes good enough for 11th overall...and just 1hr25min slower than Dart's overall time which was good enough for 5th. We were solid in transition and this was a huge improvement for us!
Biking: 59 hours and 26 minutes for 19th overall
Trekking: 68 hours and 21 minutes for 20th
Kayaking: 14 hours and 16 minutes for 8th!! Still don't understand how we were able to pull this off?
Our total sleep time in the 177+ hours of racing was approximately 21 hours, and outside of our last night I thought it was a solid race plan that worked well for us.
Bring on the off season and the constant dreaming of the next big race...Ecomotion Brazil next year for World Champs, Trans 333 (a 333km non-stop desert running race in Africa), Baja Travesia and 20 foot breaking waves again, B.C. Bike Race?? Who knows? All I know for sure right now is that there are some serious beers with my name written all over them!!